No. 11: Africa’s Agricultural Potential – What’s the Cost?

At what cost will Africa realize the economic potential of its agricultural industry? According to McKinsey & Company, about 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land is on the African continent. A few months ago, NPR did a piece on how Brazil has leveraged science to establish the country as a breadbasket. While listening to the piece, I thought about the model Brazil presents for African countries. Initially excited, I then thought about the potential costs of producing genetically manufactured (GM) foods.

Embrapa, Brazil’s government-run agricultural research institute, has done significant research to find ways for various types of crops to grow in the country since the 1970s. This research has led to enormous economic output. According to the Economist, Brazil drove the value of its crops from $23 billion in 1996 to $108 billion in 2006. Furthermore, the country is only using 12.5 percent of its 400 million hectares of uncultivated arable land. The Economist article qualifies these figures with the caution that Brazil drove agricultural growth systematically, and that growth on the African continent will not come quickly. Brazil spent years improving its soil, in concert with seed development. These developments led to new farming techniques that have enabled farmers to significantly increase their yields.

One can imagine the implications of Brazil’s agricultural growth for the African continent. McKinsey and Company projects that by 2040, African countries can increase the collective value of their agricultural output from $280 billion to $880 billion. To do this, countries will have to bring more land into cultivation, increase crop yields, and replace low-value crops with high-value crops like fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, if African countries are not able to implement these key drivers faster than Brazil has, 2040 will not be the year that the continent realizes $880 billion in agricultural output. The celerity with which African countries have driven the boom of the mobile phone industry makes me hopeful that it will be able to implement agricultural growth at a faster pace.

My tension lies in Brazil being second only to the United States in utilization of GM crops. Proponents of GM foods point to the necessity of these crops in establishing food security and production levels for generations to come. Critics argue against GM crops due to their potential danger to humans, and the threat they pose to other plants. A number of African countries are already producing GM crops, and scientists in Brazil continue to develop new plant technologies and farming techniques. Scientists, farmers, and policy makers are going to have to commit to thoroughly vetting the costs and benefits of employing GM crops in pursuit of a robust agricultural industry on the African continent. The economic potential of agriculture on the continent is quite impressive and will be an obstacle to objective cost-benefit analysis of policy options. Decision makers must champion thorough research and holistic conversations in shaping the premise on which countries drive agricultural development efforts. Without this hard analysis, the realization of Africa’s agricultural potential could come at a significant cost to the continent’s one-billion people.

10 thoughts on “No. 11: Africa’s Agricultural Potential – What’s the Cost?

  1. Kwame, I really appreciate this blog. As an African, I am proud to know that 60 percent of the worlds’ arable land is African. However, there is a also a great concern of how we capitalize on this. If Brazil can do it, why can’t we? Especially considering the statistics gathered by McKinsey & Company. I would only hope that as African leaders proceed in expanding agriculture, we exercise wisdom. Although I am not an expertise in the subject of agriculture, I would always prefer to the “organic” way of harvesting crop.


  2. Val, thanks for your comment. Africa has a lot of potential to innovate in how it brings agriculture to scale. I would definitely prefer organic farming. I’m sure there are people working on how to grow the continent’s agriculture industry while leveraging organic farming. It would be great to see them give companies like Monsanto some competition.


  3. Mr. Som-Pimpong

    After reading your post there are some questions that I think are worthy of consideration. How much of a comparison can we make between the two regions? Back in early 1900’s Henry Ford spent great efforts in trying to cultivate part of Brazil for both timber and rubber. At the end of the day, Ford realized that some of the agricultural methods that seemed to be “best practice” were actually detrimental. My last question is considering the vast need for agriculture in Afica for so many years what seems to be the biggest turning point? Certainly the need has been there for the local inhabitants so who has the most to gain (outsiders) and how will that benefit Africans? Thank you for your time Mr. Som-Pimgong.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Billy. I think that the primary factor that makes Brazil comparable to many African countries is that Brazil took land that appeared to be good only for a certain type of agriculture and found a way to make it highly productive. Your anecdote on Henry Ford is one that re-affirms the need for effective cost-benefit analysis on the part of policy makers.

      The biggest turning point for Africa – I still have much to learn but here are two things that I think have brought us to a turning point. 1) Technology has really changed a lot on the Continent. Farmers are now able to check global food prices from their mobile phones. 2) Governments are doing more to support their people. For example, Nigeria has committed to strengthening its Bank of Agriculture in efforts to fully support an agriculture industry that makes up 42 percent of the country’s GDP.

      I would like to see African countries increasingly less dependent on food imports and aid from other countries. African countries have a lot to gain from growing their own food. Agricultural products make up the majority of Ghana’s exports to the US. Further increasing African countries’ ability to support their people and export to other countries would be great, in my opinion.


  4. This issue is of primary concern to Africa’s future development. It is clear that much greater efficiencies can be achieved in African agriculture but all costs must be considered when choosing the methods selected. The ultimate measurement must be the benefits to people of Africa, not simply some measure of output.


  5. This is very interesting, thank you so much. I am an Agric Engineer in Zimbabwe and i think that the first port of call is to educate people and help them move from being subsistence farmers to being commercial farmers.In southern Africa the climate is slowly changing which is greatly affecting food production which is a cause for concern.Gvts are injecting millions in agric sectors but because of climate change and poor mindsets the yields are low and will continue to decrease.
    Colonialism left people with a perception that the “white collar” jobs are the best neglecting agriculture which is the core for a stable economy and development of any country.
    Having noted climate change as one of the factors affecting food producion it is therefore important to tap into ground water for irrigation to increase food production.
    It is high time that as concerned parties we structure systems that ensure the education of people and irrigation development to increase productivity.
    We can start by having a forum where ideas raised and implemented by people who are into agriculture from economics to engineering for a sustainable future.


    1. Mr. Hove, Thank you so much for your thoughts. While I was in Uganda, I saw first hand the impact that more information could have on subsistence farmers in the eastern part of the country. Education is definitely huge.

      Simba Mhungu, a farmer in Zimbabwe, serves as a great model for getting rid of the stigma surrounding farming. He worked at Goldman Sachs in New York and moved back to Zimbabwe to re-invigorate his late father’s farm.

      Have you seen McKinsey & Company’s latest report on what governments can do to develop their agriculture sectors? Here is a link:


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